The Barbie syndrome
by Rebecca L Eisenberg

published in The San Francisco Examiner
Sunday, May 4, 1997, pages D5, D12

Do girls really need their own private tent in the dark and dangerous forest of computer games? They sure do, according to Brenda Laurel, a human-computer interface designer, virtual reality consultant, and "recovering self-marginalizer."

Laurel decided to go mainstream and capitalistically exploit a market she could call her own -- computer games for girls.

As an employee of Interval Research Group, the long-term growth-strategies thinktank in Silicon Valley founded by Microsoft's zillionaire Paul Allen, and Xerox Park founder David Liddle, Laurel set out on a project aimed to bring girls into the overtly male game development world. Focusing her market research on girls aged 7 to 12, Laurel spent three years studying sex-based brain differences and "biologically driven" gender-based behavioral differences between young males and females -- both human and chimpanzee.

Thus was born her killer app company of the girlgame world-- Purple Moon, with its coming-this-fall-we-swear product line tailored to girls' purported preferences for communication over competition, context over chaos, and verbal strikes over violent attacks.

Something sounds real familiar here, as well it should. By appealing to these "special qualities" in females, Laurel is doing nothing short of taking advantage of well-established cultural stereotypes about the appropriate roles for men and women to create a new market.

Dr. Barrie Thorne, professor at Sociology at UC-Berkeley, agrees. "This is just another example of this tawdry history of sex difference research that is driven by stereotypes and results in reinforcing those stereotypes," she comments.

"There is simply no basis for their sweeping claims of biological hardwiring," continued Thorne, who has 20 years' experience studying the behavior differences between boys and girls. "If anything, most of the research that is now going on focuses on the diversity of sexual differentiation within sexes, rather than between them."

Thorne is right. In looking high and low for biological explanations for alleged divergent behavior between girls and boys, researchers are avoiding the more obvious explanation to matters of gender-based behavioral differences -- such as the plain fact that we live in a society that treats males and females differently -- usually to the detriment of women by boxing them into these very non-lucrative, non-powerful "preference" categories.

It is impossible to exist in our society without being subject to the ubiquitous social forces that constantly reward girls for acting like girls; punish girls for acting like boys; reward boys for acting like boys; and punish boys for acting like girls. People have trouble talking to a baby without knowing its gender, for example. If a girl: "How pretty she is! She'll be a looker!" If a boy: "Isn't he a big strong little guy! He'll be the President!" All this talk about "celebrating female qualities" is nothing short of -- like always -- putting women in their place.

And that place, when it comes to girls' software producers, is in the toy and software store, pulling pastel boxes from the pink shelves. For good reason. According to the multimedia press materials from Girlgames Inc. (, there are over 19 million girls between the ages of 8 and 18 in the U.S., and these girls are said to spend over $57 billion of their own money annually. Furthermore, Girlgames' figures show that girls are, in fact, using this money to purchase software regularly. Of 3,000 girls polled in one study, 21 percent had bought software during the course of the prior month. That is a lot of girls buying a lot of software, already, without the rise of a gender-segmented market.

Still insisting that girls need a separate line, girlgames producers point to the market success of Mattel's "Barbie Fashion Designer" as proof. Some proof. "Barbie Fashion Designer" exploited an already proven brand, was accompanied by millions of dollars spent in television commercials and other advertising, and still sold only about 500,000 units. This figure comes nowhere close to gender-neutral titles like Broderbund's record-setting title "Myst," (3.5 million copies, over one-third of which were sold to girls and women), and "Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego?" (over 5 millions copies, split equally between boys and girls). And they really expect us to believe that "Barbie" sold only to girls? Whom are they fooling; this is theSan Francisco Bay Area.

Laura Groppe, president of Girl Games, Inc., which developed the insipid, vaguely classist and arguably homophobic point-and-click girl game "Let's Talk About Me," also insists that she knows what girls really want. "When I entered this market in 1994, there were 2,500 CD-ROM titles on the shelf, and not one of them appealed to girls," she pronounced, apparently ignoring the existence of "Myst'' and "SanDiego," both of which were selling in the hundred-thousands in 1994. "It is simply a given that girls in 6th grade through 12th grade have different preferences with regard to technology. And if we do not engage girls' unique preferences, girls will be completely left out of the field of technology."

And what, according to Groppe, are "girls' preferences?" "Let's Talk About Me" focuses on "my body" (hair, wardrobe by Contempo); "my life" (cyberpals, diary); my personality (Jungian and Freudian yes-no tests); and "my future" (crystal ball, astrology, dream interpretation, palm reading, biorhythms). "I don't think that my games reinforce conventional sexist stereotypes," Groppe insists. "What we are doing is supporting girls' unique cognitive processes." Basically, to her, cognitive processes of females seem to mean planning a future through astrology and choosing the right boyfriend, all point and click able! "Don't worry," the game instructs, "dreaming about girls doesn't mean that you are a homosexual!"

Even TV has moved beyond that. Groppe admits that sexist stereotypes exist, but explains, "that is not due to Barbie and other games; that is due to the media." Not surprisingly, she had no response to my question of whether or not video games *are* part of the media.

Perhaps Professor Thorne possesses the answer. These games, she explains, are "a matter of turning the largest possible profit. This is an example of the common marketing strategy called market segmentation -- the more separate markets that you can create, the more money you can make."

In other words, if a company can sell separate games to boys and girls, it can theoretically bring in up to twice as much revenue, by selling, for example, two different products to families with both sons and daughters rather than just one to share between them.

And why not make use of commonly believed (but false) stereotypes of natural differences between the sexes to create that separate market for girls? After all, all girls want to do is point and click their way to greater popularity, right?

Face it, we do not have to create a separate (and insulting) product line to appeal to girls. "I'd tell the developers simply to make good games," agrees Diane Anderson, managing editor of Next Generation, a popular gaming magazine, who reports enjoying games as diverse as Myst and blood-and-pulp ridden Bruschido Blade.

"Stop talking down to us; stop being so condescending. Women are all different. Sometimes it feels really good to blow an opponent away, regardless of whether you (or they) are male or female. These are the very stereotypes we are trying to move away from."

And these are also the very stereotypes that keep women out of the technology field. Hey, girlgames developers: we're not playin'.

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Copyright 1997 The San Francisco Examiner and Rebecca L. Eisenberg. All rights reserved.